Ferguson and Tomorrow: King and Du Bois, Foretelling Riots, and Perfect Victim Frames

Ferguson, Missouri.

No indictment. Far from over. Split-screen Presidential speech. Sirens over Obama’s words. Mediated and medicated. Our recent mid-term elections highlight our collective disillusionment. “We understand you are frustrated,” fell flat. “Please act nice,” he told us. He spoke clinically, He is fatigued and disillusioned, too. A disillusioned President, without the audacity of hope he used to bring. What we want is not what we get. A fearful small-town America has taken over. We get circles and we are asked to run around in them.

Cameras desperate to catch images of rage, without explanation. How do you explain a nation’s legacy in a sound bite? All becomes spectacle.

We should be uniting, but we’re not. Apathy is pathology. Numbness doesn’t allow for urgency. Remember these words:

“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there “is” such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”

- Martin Luther King, Jr.

What keeps us from recognizing ourselves in each other? Privilege? Power? Ignorance? Fear? What keeps us from collectively feeling that fierce urgency? Everywhere you read social criticism, and nobody is shocked by anything. We become resigned and cynical because it is what we have been taught. It is our collective defense mechanism and it is defeatist. From W.E.B. Du Bois, “A Negro Nation Within a Nation” (1934). (Thanks to Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom via Twitter)

The colored people of America are coming to face the fact quite calmly that most white Americans do not like them, and are planning neither for their survival, nor for their definite future if it involves free, self-assertive modern manhood. This does not mean all Americans. A saving few are worried about the Negro problem; a still larger group are not ill-disposed, but they fear prevailing public opinion. The great mass of Americans are, however, merely representatives of average humanity. They muddle along with their own affairs and scarcely can be expected to take seriously the affairs of strangers or people whom they partly fear and partly despise.

– W.E.B Du Bois

DuBois was a staunch integrationist through most of his life. However, five years after the stock market crash, as the nation struggled, and as he resigned from the NAACP, he seemed to sense that integration would be a long and obstacle-filled road. Today, our communities and schools are more segregated than they’ve been in decades.

It begins with segregation and ends with narcissism. Empathy shrinks. Sarcasm reigns. If it’s all about me, it’s never about us. When every media outlet is trying to out-do the other media outlets, spectacle wins. When everything is spectacle, nothing is spectacular.

While we focus on ourselves and our technology, we remain blind to the regression of our society.

***

“Chronicle of a Riot Foretold” by Jelani Cobb, New Yorker (November 25, 2014)

FERGUSON, Missouri—For a hundred and eight days, through the suffocating heat that turned the city into a kiln, through summer thunderstorms and the onset of an early winter, through bureaucratic callousness and the barbs of cynics who held that the effort was of no use and the prickly fear that they might be right, a community in Ferguson, Missouri, held vigil nightly, driven by the need to validate a simple principle: black lives matter. On November 24, 2014, we learned that they do indeed matter, just less than others—less than the prerogatives of those who wield power here, less than even the cynics may have suspected.

Last night, the streets of Ferguson were congested with smoke and anger and disillusionment and disbelief, and also with batons and the malevolent percussion of gunfire and the hundreds of uniformed men brought here to marshal and display force. Just after eight on Monday evening, after a rambling dissertation from the St. Louis County Prosecutor, Robert McCulloch, that placed blame for tensions on social media and the twenty-four-hour news cycle, and ended with the announcement that the police officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted for shooting Michael Brown six times, the crowd that gathered in front of the police headquarters, on South Florissant Road, began to swell. Their mood was sombre at first, but some other sentiment came to the fore, and their restraint came unmoored. A handful of men began chanting “Fuck the police!” in front of the line of officers in riot gear that had gathered in front of the headquarters. Gunshots, the first I heard that night, cut through the air, and a hundred people began drifting in the direction of the bullets. One man ripped down a small camera mounted on a telephone pole. A quarter mile away, the crowd encountered an empty police car and within moments it was aflame. A line of police officers in military fatigues and gas masks turned a corner and began moving north toward the police building. There were four hundred protesters and nearly that many police officers filling an American street, one side demanding justice, one side demanding order, both recognizing that neither of those things was in the offing that night.

What transpired in Ferguson last night was entirely predictable, widely anticipated, and, yet, seemingly inevitable. Late last week, Michael Brown, Sr. released a video pleading for calm, his forlorn eyes conveying exhaustion born of not only shouldering grief but also of insisting on civic calm in the wake of his son’s death. One of the Brown family’s attorneys, Anthony Gray, held a press conference making the same request, and announced that a team of citizen peacekeepers would be present at any subsequent protests. Ninety minutes later, the St. Louis mayor, Francis Slay, held a press conference in which he pledged that the police would show restraint in the event of protests following the grand-jury decision. He promised that tear gas and armored vehicles would not be deployed to manage protests. The two conferences bore a disturbing symmetry, an inversion of pre-fight hype in which each side deprecated about possible violence but expressed skepticism that the other side was capable of doing the same. It’s possible that, recognizing that violence was all but certain, both sides were seeking to deflect the charge that they had encouraged it. Others offered no such pretense. Days ahead of the announcement, local businesses began boarding up their doors and windows like a coastal town anticipating a hurricane. Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declared a preëmptive state of emergency a week before the grand jury concluded its work. His announcement was roughly akin to declaring it daytime at 3 A.M. because the sun will rise eventually.

From the outset, the great difficulty has been discerning whether the authorities are driven by malevolence or incompetence. The Ferguson police let Brown’s body lie in the street for four and a half hours, an act that either reflected callous disregard for him as a human being or an inability to manage the situation. The release of Darren Wilson’s name was paired with the release of a video purportedly showing Brown stealing a box of cigarillos from a convenience store, although Ferguson police chief Tom Jackson later admitted that Wilson was unaware of the incident when he confronted the young man. (McCulloch contradicted this in his statement on the non-indictment.) Last night, McCulloch made the inscrutable choice to announce the grand jury’s decision after darkness had fallen and the crowds had amassed in the streets, factors that many felt could only increase the risk of violence. Despite the sizable police presence, few officers were positioned on the stretch of West Florissant Avenue where Brown was killed. The result was that damage to the area around the police station was sporadic and short-lived, but Brown’s neighborhood burned. This was either bad strategy or further confirmation of the unimportance of that community in the eyes of Ferguson’s authorities.

The pleas of Michael Brown’s father and Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, were ultimately incapable of containing the violence that erupted last night, because in so many ways what happened here extended beyond their son. His death was a punctuation to a long, profane sentence, one which has insulted a great many, and with damning frequency of late. In his statement after the decision was announced, President Barack Obama took pains to point out that “there is never an excuse for violence.” The man who once told us that there was no black America or white America but only the United States of America has become a President whose statements on unpunished racial injustices are a genre unto themselves. Perhaps it only seems contradictory that the deaths of Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin, John Ford and Michael Brown—all unarmed black men shot by men who faced no official sanction for their actions—came during the first black Presidency. Or perhaps the message here is that American democracy has reached the limits of its elasticity—that the symbolic empowerment of individuals, while the great many remain citizen-outsiders, is the best that we can hope for. The air last night, thick with smoke and gunfire, suggested something damning of the President.

***

“The Danger of the Perfect Victim Frame” by Jamilah King, Colorlines (August 19, 2014)

On March 2, 1955, a black girl boarded a bus in a mid-size city in Alabama. She took a seat toward the front, something she knew went against the laws of the Jim Crow South. She didn’t get up as more white people boarded the bus. When the driver told her to move to the back, she refused. She did the same when two police officers commanded her to move. As police officers forcibly removed her from the bus in handcuffs, she repeatedly exclaimed that she had constitutional rights. Still, she was later convicted of disturbing the peace, violating the state’s segregation law and assault.

Civil rights activists had long wanted to wage a campaign against segregation on public transit, but this girl— Claudette Colvin—wouldn’t serve as the public face. Although she was active in her NAACP’s youth council, the Birmingham native didn’t fit the bill. She was 15, visibly poor, and soon, visibly pregnant, qualities that some civil rights leaders saw as flaws. Nine months later Rosa Parks—a middle class, churchgoing 42-year-old who served as the secretary of her local NAACP and a mentor to Colvin—refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus. Colvin never became a household name, but Parks’ planned act of civil disobedience made her one of the most recognizable and admired black victims of white racism of the 20th century. “Her skin texture was the kind that people associate with the middle class,” Colvin, who is dark-skinned, said 50 years later in an interview with NPR. “She fit that profile.”

In other words Parks was a perfect victim. Her morals were unassailed.

Today, if we are to believe law enforcement and personal responsibility-loving politicians such as President Obama, black victims of white racism must still, as Colvin put it, “fit the profile.” Their victimhood is only supposed to matter if their lives are pristine. That’s why St. Louis County law enforcement keeps trying to chip away at the popular image of Michael Brown as a college-bound gentle giant. Last Friday, while identifying the 18-year-old’s killer as Officer Darren Wilson, local police released surveillance footage from a convenience store that allegedlly shows Brown stealing cigars and assaulting a clerk. (Later that day, Police Chief Thomas Jackson admitted that Wilson didn’t know that Brown was a suspect.) On Monday, unnamed sources from the St. Louis County medical examiner’s office told The Washington Post that Brown had marijuana in his blood at the time of his killing.

These tidbits are an obvious distraction from the most urgent matter: a police officer’s killing of an unarmed young man.

This is why we must be clear about the danger of the perfect victim frame. In cases like the Brown killing, this structure serves to legitimize the sometimes-lethal police brutality of people of color. Think about all of our imperfect victims: Oscar Grant did time in state prison. Trayvon Martin was suspended from school and occasionally smoked weed. Remarley Graham also smoked weed. Jordan Davis played loud hip-hop. Renisha McBride was allegedly intoxicated. Eric Garner was accused of selling unlicensed cigarettes. See how this works?

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Celtics Journal: Game 12 of 82, Sun 11/23, Blazers @ Celtics (How to Lose Close Games)

Game 12 of 82 (14.6%), Sunday, November 23, 3:00 PST

Blazers @ Celtics

Portland’s Rise

Last year, Portland galloped off to a 22-5 start and had NBA experts demanding that they stop dominating teams with their well-lubricated ball movement and nifty three-point shooting. It was true that the Blazers had feasted on weaker opponents and that their torrid shooting and excellent 4th quarter play had to regress at some point. After 15 games, the Blazers were 13-2. I looked at five of the NBA’s top offenses and what made them so effective. They were hitting three-pointers at an insane clip, and their focus on LaMarcus Aldridge’s mid-range game kept them from turning the ball over. By maintaining the 8th best assist-to-turnover ratio, the Blazers were able to make up for their lack of pace. At the time, Wesley Mathews was shooting 53% from deep. By season’s end, Mathews had gone back to his career mark of 39%. The Blazers finished the season with 54 wins, and matched up with the Houston Rockets in the playoffs.

To the surprise of some, despite their identical records, the Blazers beat Houston in 6 games. LaMarcus Aldridge’s 40-point performances were the opening headlines of the series. A Damian Lillard epic game-winner over Chandler Parsons’ outstretched arm remains the defining image of the series.What can’t be forgotten, however, is the Blazers defense.

Defensive Chemistry

Many of those knowledgeable NBA folks refused to believe Portland could defend in the playoffs. It may have helped that they matched up with Houston, whose offense revolved around James Harden’s individual creativity, Dwight Howard’s post-ups, and a fast-paced transition-focused game. Howard’s free-throw shooting was exploited. Harden’s moves were stifled by the physicality and smarts of Wesley Mathews and Nicolas Batum, and the Blazers moved on. Watching Mathews and Batum play defense is inspiring. Watching Harden: not so much. As Celtics fans recall (2008-2012) defensive chemistry is what separates good teams from the great ones.

Marcus Smart may someday follow in the Mathews mold, with more penetrating and passing ability. The three-point shot is what has elevated Mathews’ career. Both Houston and Portland are dominating again this year.

After only Golden State, Houston and Portland are currently tied for 2nd in opponent field-goal percentage (.413). They take away the three-pointer better than every other team, including the notoriously stingy Spurs, giving up only 5.4 per game. The caveat, of course, is that these numbers are based on 13 games, and they have yet to face Houston, San Antonio, and Memphis, the cream of the Western Conference. Last year, Portland was 21-22 against plus .500 teams. In that way, they make a nice measuring stick for opponents. If you beat Portland (and it’s not because of the schedule), you are probably a good team. If you lose to Portland, you’re probably not a good team. By that measure, the Celtics are not quite a good team. We’ve learned that much over 12 games. They are certainly not a bad team. They are a young team, struggling to win close games. That struggle is painful.

The Game

The Celtics defended Portland well. They held Aldridge and Lillard in check (combining for 32 points on 35 shot attempts). They defended the three-point line, holding Portland to 7 of 19 from deep. What they didn’t do well is defend the paint. Stop me if you’ve heard this before.

Repainting the Paint

Neither Kelly Olynyk nor Jared Sullinger is a center. Brad Stevens’ only other option is Tyler Zeller, and Stevens is committed to allowing Olynyk to work through his mistakes, which are plenty. Olynyk is a work-in-progress. He is showing serious range early in the season, connecting on 45% from beyond the arc, and 55% overall. He’s active in defending passing lanes, coming up with deflections and a few steals.

The toughest thing about watching these almost-there-losses (Phoenix and Portland especially) is that the patience required of watching a young player (Olynyk) develop means watching things fall apart. He’s simply in over his head at times. When he’s not stretching the defense and hitting threes, Olynyk puts too much pressure on the Celtics defense. Tyler Zeller is not the long-term answer at center, either, but he is serviceable, and gives Boston a semblance of paint-clogging defense. Olynyk is the main reason Chris Kaman put together 16 points and 8 boards in 18 minutes.

Portland game-planned for Olynyk’s shooting. The result: 27 minutes, 0 of 3 from the field, 0 points. Negative 15.

Three Defining Moments from Sunday

  • The Celtics led 49-41 with 0:10 remaining in the first half. Brandon Bass had an open 13-footer. Bass is practically automatic on this shot. He missed long, and Damion Lillard finished the half with a 3-point play. Five point swing. Instead of leading by 10, Boston is up 5 at the half. Celtics 49, Blazers 44. http://on.nba.com/1C4Ny7H
  • This may seem like nit-picking. It is. I hate it when players save the ball under their opponent’s hoop. Sullinger was trying to make a hustle play after deflecting a pass. He saves the ball, directly to a Blazer. It ends in an Aldridge lay-up. Blazers 59, Celtics 57. http://on.nba.com/11pF8qP
  • Beginning of the 4th quarter, simple mistake: Evan Turner takes his eye of the ball while receiving the pass. Coming out of the huddle, first play of the 4th. Players make mistakes. Things happen. Sometimes one or two possessions can swing a game. Score 72-72. Turner coming off a screen at top of the key. No deflection. Just slips through his hands. Portland goes on to score the next 8 points in the first 1:47 of the 4th. The Celtics won’t recover.  http://on.nba.com/1C4R2qM

This is how you lose close games. The coaching cliche, “You have to value every possession,” holds meaning. You hear it in the playoff huddles. Good teams execute. Having veterans helps. Our Boston Celtics sit at 4-8 instead of 7-5 because they are young and learning and making mistakes. Try not to focus on the standings. At least they’re giving themselves a chance to make mistakes that matter in the 4th quarter against good teams.

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Celtics Journal: Game 11 of 82, Fri 11/21, Celtics @ Grizzlies (Systematic Destruction)

Game 11 of 82 (13.4%), Friday, November 21, 500 PST

Celtics @ Grizzlies

There are very few teams in professional sports that attain a level of consistent excellence and remain in the shadows. Win enough games and the shadows become the spotlight. The small market status of the San Antonio and Memphis make it easy for ESPN and TNT to overlook these cities and their dominant teams. The old-school Spurs of 2003-2007 (pre-Kawhi, pre-Danny Green) who relied on suffocating defense and Tim Duncan’s post-up stability were not easy on the eyes. And neither are the Memphis Grizzlies of today.

Zach Randolph is all flying elbows and back-to-the-basket butt-rams. An up-fake or two and back to the foul line. Old friend Tony Allen’s jump shot is nothing less than a construction project, though his defense continues to cause all kinds of problems for wing scorers. The Grizzlies “grit-and-grind” sensibility has meshed perfectly with Memphis’ citizenry. The Grizzlies are a wrecking ball and they wreck offenses on a nightly basis.

Marc Gasol and Mike Conley are the exceptions. Though they play just as physically on the defensive end as any point guard and center combination in the league, they have legitimate offensive artistry in their respective repertoires. Marc Gasol, whose high-post passing skills are rivaled by few bigs other than his older brother Pau, hits backdoor cuts seamlessly. Mike Conley’s ambidextrous dribbling and passing acumen are a sight to behold. Conley’s stifling defense neutralizes the best point men in the game. Tonight would be no different.

Despite having five members of their roster suffering through the stomach virus from hell (I know what that’s like), the Grizzlies were going to beat the Boston Celtics on Friday night, November 21st. It wasn’t a matter of if, but how. The how turned out to be systematic destruction. Points in the paint. Coming into the game, both Memphis and Boston were among the league’s top 5 teams in paint production. Memphis is no surprise. The Celtics, on the other hand, who have no post-presence, are scoring at close range thanks to the following: the Celtics have one of the best passers in the NBA in Rajon Rondo, and they’ve surrounded Rondo with capable shooters and ball-movers. Sadly, Conley’s defense prevented Rondo from even starting his engine.

That fluid Celtics ball movement sputtered its way to 43% shooting against Memphis. At halftime, Memphis was 15 of 19 from the paint, en route to a 55-41 halftime lead. The game moved quickly, as if both teams knew the inevitable outcome and refused to prolong the agony. By halftime, only five free-throws were attempted in total.

Jon Leuer’s Early Thanksgiving Feast

Furthering a trend we’ve seen in the first 10 games, Boston’s lack of defense enabled an opposing reserve big-man to have himself a career night. Jon Leuer was the beneficiary on this night. In the second quarter alone, the 6’10” stretch forward from Long Lake, Minnesota had himself quite the feast. Leuer, who has played in Germany (during the 2011 lockout), Milwaukee, Cleveland and Canton (D-League), has found a home in Memphis. Facing a combination of Tyler Zeller and Kelly Olynyk, Leuer scored 10 points on 5 of 7 shots (three uncontested 10-15 footers, and two lay-ups), 3 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals. Leuer did that damage in 9 2nd-quarter minutes. Leuer finished with 19 points on 9 of 13 shooting. I’m not sure he needed a towel when he sat back down on the bench.

Marc Gasol devoured Kelly Olynyk, Jared Sullinger, and Tyler Zeller. He also got away with some serious roughhousing because he’s Marc Gasol. It comes with the territory. The good teams get to physically abuse the bad teams, especially down low. Gasol finished with 32 points on 13 of 22 (10 of his first 16) from the field.

At least Olynyk got some measure of revenge, heating up in the 3rd quarter with 14 points, including a pair from deep, as he and Gasol traded baskets.

The Celtics kept this game from falling to pieces, losing with as much dignity as a 117-100 final score might allow.

Upcoming Game and Smart’s Return

Sunday, 11/23: vs. Portland

Monday-Thursday: practice time and Marcus Smart’s likely return from a sprained ankle

Sunday brings another brutal test: the Portland Trail Blazers.

Soon enough it will be December and the Celtics will see some daylight in the schedule.

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